27 September 2023

Teaming reigns: How top leaders pay close attention to their teams

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Glenn Leibowitz* reports that an expert on work teams believes that if the dynamics are not right, the success of an overall organisation can be threatened.

Whether you’re a coder at a five-person Agency or one of thousands of employees at a sprawling Government Department, the one thing you can be certain of is that you’ll be working in one or more teams.

Teams are the most fundamental unit around which every organisation is structured.

When teams work well, organisations design and produce great products and services.

The most successful leaders in any organisation tend to be the ones who can build and motivate teams to achieve common goals.

Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Lindred Greer says one of the clearest signs of an experienced leader is the attention she pays to her people and her teams.

“Everything is determined by the quality of team dynamics, and the ability to effectively lead teams is at the heart of managerial success,” Professor Greer says.

Professor Greer has spent her career studying teams, which she defines as “groups of three to 10 people who work together interdependently toward a common task”.

From her research she has developed a deep understanding of what makes teams effective.

In a recent article on Stanford’s website, she shared three suggestions for building and managing effective teams.

Build diverse teams:

She is mystified by the lack of planning behind many of the teams that are formed.

Organisations that put some thought into the composition of their teams are likely to build ones that are more successful.

Successful teams, as her research demonstrates, are diverse teams.

“Members should have different ways of thinking, different backgrounds and styles of work, different expertise,” Professor Greer says.

“Bring optimists and pessimists together; pair risk-takers with risk-avoiders; balance genders.

“In other words, design a team around complementary but distinct attitudes and strengths.”

While encouraging diversity, she also cautions against the possibility of a divergence in goals among team members.

That’s why she suggests laying down clear goals and ground rules in advance:

“Every team should take part in an orientation in which goals are stated explicitly, benchmarks are established, and responsibilities of each team member are made clear,” she says.

Introduce ‘hierarchical agility’:

Every team has a leader, but bringing power dynamics into team meetings is a danger.

“It often corrupts team interactions, stifles creativity and honesty, and ultimately diminishes outcomes,” Professor Greer says.

To address this issue she recommends ‘hierarchical agility’ — the ability of a team to flex its hierarchy throughout the day so that “sometimes the group is flat and sometimes it follows the line”.

Professor Greer offers a few practical ideas on how to make a team flat, like passing an object around to give everyone at the meeting a chance to say something.

Body language is also important, and she suggests leaders lean back and hand over the supervision of the meeting to someone else on the team, at least temporarily.

They should also make sure conversations are rooted in data.

“This helps enormously because data is a currency that everyone has access to,” Professor Greer says.

Spot (and fix) problems early:

Spotting and fixing problems as they arise within a team is another recommendation she offers.

Left alone, small issues become bigger ones, and can disrupt team dynamics.

Professor Greer has noticed that even seemingly trivial struggles between team members could signal more serious underlying problems on the team.

Team members who believe they’ve been passed over for a promotion or lack certain responsibilities might express their frustration in other areas.

To tackle this, “stop the meeting short and go offline” with the person, she says.

“Find what’s driving the conflict and resolve that issue.”

If team members aren’t speaking up in meetings, managers should proactively try to address this.

“Pay attention to small details, like where they (and others) sit in meetings and how this affects conversation,” Professor Greer says.

“Or how their responses to ideas influence whether people speak up.”

* Glenn Leibowitz is a communications professional who leads media relations, publishing, digital and social media communications, internal communications, and reputation risk management initiatives across five locations in China. He can be contacted at mckinseychina.com.

This article first appeared at LinkedIn.

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